Making Us Look Bad From 1,100 Miles Away

There is a reason for the stereotype.  I won’t deny that.

Reporters are gossips off camera.  We look for any and every little way to get the information we need for our story (and be the first to report that information).  We are Type A, we are aggressive, and most of all…we are competitive.  All that turns up an extra notch with a “big story,” and that’s what we’ve seen this week in Great Bend with the disappearance of 14-year-old Alicia DeBolt.

14-year-old Alicia DeBolt

The vast majority of us are ethical.  Then, that one person comes in and ruins whatever professional currency we’ve built up.

I’ve seen this before, mostly from national media who swoop in for a few days of our big story and then move on to the next town’s news.

GREENSBURG, MAY 2007

The smashed car was covered, front to rear bumper, with American flags.  It was just a few days after an EF-5 tornado destroyed the town of Greensburg, and Fox News crews were preparing for a mid-day live shot in front of the wreckage.

The reporter told a patriotic story of the citizens of Greensburg gathering U.S. flags from around town and decorating a friend’s car as a sign of strength.

The problem?  The rest of us had watched the Fox News crew gather the flags themselves and drape them over the car 20 minutes earlier.  After a quick mention to a Kansas Highway Patrol Trooper, the flags were quickly snatched away along with a threat to kick the crew out of town.

That threat would be repeated a day later as those same reporters and photographers went into the destroyed Greensburg Public Library and grabbed chairs from inside to sit on.  This, of course, was trespass and looting.

It wasn’t just TV crews, however, that left a sour taste in locals’ mouths.

“You’re going to need him (Greensburg City Manager Steve Hewitt) to call back because I can assure you he’ll want to talk to USA Today.”

Coworker Michael Schwanke and I looked at each other like maybe we’d misheard the short woman with the reporter’s notebook.  The national newspaper reporter simply didn’t believe the city manger had more important things to do than talk to her.  The Kansas National Guard spokeswoman shook her head and repeated once again that Hewitt would come by as soon as he could.

That’s about the time I heard Mike tell the spokeswoman one of the smartest things a local media reporter can convey:  “We’ll be here 10 years from now.  She’s gone on Wednesday.”

GREAT BEND, AUGUST 2010

Tammy Conrad bawled as she described her daughter and insisted the 14-year-old wasn’t a runaway.  This was Tuesday, August 24.  Three days since Alicia DeBolt’s disappearance.

Speaking with DeBolt's family. Tammy Conrad is seated.

I listened to the entire story of DeBolt’s disappearance from her family’s perspective, considered other missing teen stories I’ve covered, and drove away from Great Bend thinking to myself, “There’s a pretty decent chance that woman’s daughter is a runaway.”

Family members told us DeBolt left her home around 11:00 p.m. Saturday night with a 19-year-old man to go to a party.  The girl was supposed to be home by midnight, but she missed curfew.  Conrad said the system of mother-to-daughter phone calls and texts had never failed, even if the girl was running just a few minutes late.  DeBolt’s phone was off.  The panic was on.

I felt there was as much or more of a chance Alicia had a boyfriend she didn’t want Mom to know about as there was of foul play.  Mom knew better.

Three hours after my conversation with Conrad, a Venture Construction employee found a charred body near a gravel pile at an asphalt plant five miles southwest of Great Bend.

The asphalt plant five miles southwest of Great Bend where DeBolt's body was found.

At five minutes until 6:00 p.m., the Kansas Attorney General’s Office called me to let me know they were sending out a press release about the body in 10 minutes.

I went live five minutes later with my report.  The rumors flew.

REACTION FROM ATLANTA

As I type this Thursday evening, I’ve just been told Nancy Grace used a video clip and my voice from a story KWCH aired in her CNN show tonight.  I can’t say I’m thrilled.

Grace went on air an hour after our Tuesday evening newscast with her version of the DeBolt disappearance.  She and her experts said the body found was a female (not confirmed at that point), showed a map with incorrect scene locations, and used a phoner interview from a local reporter to spread the rumor the body had been burned (again, not confirmed at that point).

Our main female anchor, Cindy Klose, buried her head in her arms and I heard a muffled voice say, “I swear this isn’t how we did it when I worked at CNN.”

When I spoke with one of KBI’s lead investigators the next day, he told me he actually considered calling Grace’s show to tell them to “stop lying” because rumor-mongering wasn’t helping the case.  To be fair, he didn’t say it was hurting the case.

When I returned to Great Bend Wednesday, DeBolt’s family wasn’t talking.   They were still very kind and the victim advocate told me the hardest part for them was thinking Alicia had been found…but not knowing Alicia had been found.

That’s why I was pretty surprised when I began receiving messages from our newsroom around 7:30 p.m. that Grace had again reported an assumption.  She was reporting DeBolt’s family had confirmed to her that Alicia’s body had been ID’d.

I returned to the family where the victim advocate told me police hadn’t contacted them yet.

“When this is all over, we’ll tell you what we think of Nancy Grace,” she said.

Perhaps, the show decided to report a positive ID after hearing DeBolt’s family was moving forward with funeral arrangements (pure speculation on my part).  That’s still a little like connecting Point A to Point B 1/2, though.

Around 9:00, the victim advocate’s story about police contact changed.  She said she couldn’t talk anymore, and the KBI agent and Great Bend Police Chief walked out of DeBolt’s house five minutes later.

The family had been told about the positive ID.  I just couldn’t get anyone to confirm it, so I went on air with what I’d seen.

NOT JUST NATIONAL

To be fair, Grace’s reports weren’t the only questionable behavior I saw this week.

As I stood talking with a Barton County Sheriff’s deputy and an employee from the asphalt plant Wednesday, I was surprised to look up and see a reporter from another station walking through the plant’s property with a camera.  I assume he was trying to get a better look at the crime scene.  The deputy and employee quickly drove off and kicked him off the property.

Though no trespassing signs were posted, all of us had been told to stay off the property.  He was trespassing.

Needless to say, our relationship with police was strained the rest of the day.  It didn’t matter that the person who acted up wasn’t from KWCH.  To the people involved, we’re all connected.  We’re all part of “media.”

THE UPSHOT

I’m not saying I’ve never slipped up.  I have.  Not on purpose, of course.

These results will eventually be forgotten.  In big stories, the people involved get to know us over time and realize most of us are normal just like them.

Cindy Sanderholm, the mother of another brutally murdered Kansas teen, texted me several times the last few days asking that I pass her condolences and her phone number on to Tammy Conrad.  That’s how well you get to know the people affected by this kind of tragedy.

It’s too bad that right now, some of those people are connecting us with those who gossip while the cameras are still rolling.

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